|Re-Conceiving the Concept of Stewardship: Coal Production and the Importance of a New Christian Context for Appalachia
By: The Rev. Marshall Jolly and Dr. Clint Jones
Historically discourses about justice have focused on a singular aspect of life (i.e. economic, social, political, class, etc.) while failing to acknowledge other areas or minimizing their importance in relation to the perceived dominant narrative. Only in the last half century have theorists, activists, and citizens begun to understand these discourses not as beliefs that occasionally intersect or share goals but rather as being intertwined and dependent upon each other. The more holistic our understanding of justice the more likely we are to build successful justice-focused movements at all levels of society. However, the more holistic our understanding of justice the more likely we are to see the goal of achieving justice as unattainable.
Additionally, a holistic understanding of justice still needs to be anchored to a framework that legitimizes each narrative without privileging one over another while providing the necessary state of affairs through which all struggles can be understood as linked together as parallel struggles that cannot be addressed in isolation. As Joyce Barry persuasively argues, the struggle for environmental justice provides “the best framework through which to explore [other social] problems because such a framework exposes class, race, and gender divisions, which precipitate and sustain environmental degradation.”1 Hence, addressing environmental degradation attends to these injustices as well.
Our paper asks what it would mean for churches, and other religious organizations generally, to return to a revitalized concept of stewardship by utilizing Wendell Berry’s terminology—terminology that is laden with deeply theological meaning—in order to navigate the crisis generated by the coal industry in Appalachia. In particular, we are concerned with the current rhetoric utilized by proponents of coal mining to create a context in which coal mining is ecologically, economically, and morally justifiable—this is especially pertinent in exposing the “Friends of Coal” which has been the primary organization for driving the rhetorical context of Appalachian lives as more and more people outside Appalachia seek alternatives to coal for our country’s energy needs. By applying Berry’s terminology to this crisis, we contend that instead of understanding the crisis of coal production in terms of efficiency, numbers, quantities, and data, this crisis is better understood in terms of care, character, condition, quality, and kind.2
II. The Appalachian Context
Understanding the immediacy of questions regarding environmental degradation in Appalachia requires that we account for what is happening in an Appalachia dominated by coal-profiteering. By briefly focusing on the destruction of the Appalachian Mountain Range via a coal mining process known as Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR) it is easy to see that coal is not just destroying the environment but is also destroying the ability of Appalachian residents to generate the social capital necessary to stop, prevent, and recover from the destruction of MTR.
MTR sites are often described as ‘moonscapes’ because the desolate landscapes conjure up notions of the moon’s surface. Like the moon, MTR sites are dusty, gray, and inhospitable, with a pockmarked riddled topography. However, MTR sites differ from the moon in two important ways: first, lunar landscapes are naturally crafted, whereas Appalachian moonscapes are not. Second, unlike MTR sites the moon is almost universally considered beautiful; an opulent and glowing beacon in the night sky that is the source of mystery and majesty, calling to mind the promise and possibility of worlds beyond our own. MTR sites have quite literally cut out the mystery and majesty that was once emblematic of the Appalachian Mountains.
It can be difficult to comprehend the impact of MTR without a scale, especially if people think of MTR as a pothole-esque scar tucked away and unnoticeable in the larger mountain range. But MTR is not a pothole-size anything. “[The] average single-mining operation is approximately 450 acres” or “roughly the size of 360 football fields.”3 These are not small innocuous plateaus, they are vast swaths of destruction, craters of giant proportions and their presence is felt well beyond the now-extinct mountains of which they are painful reminders. Essentially, “moonscape” amounts to Appalachian shorthand for “mountain stump.”
If we are to embrace the idea that MTR in this case, or environmental ruin in any context, is the appropriate locus for social justice then we must come to understand the environment as more than just the ‘place’ we inhabit. Following arguments by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, Bill Martin argues for a “new agrarianism” approach to the use of the earth. For Martin such a concern is about more than just developing and maintaining sustainable agriculture. The real issue is the loss of ‘place.’ As such, Martin argues for an “ecological existentialism” in place of “an urban ideology.”4 Martin’s argument is instructive because we must begin to understand the environment as what constitutes us beyond the notion that the land is where food comes from. Our lived experience is a constant reproduction of our interactions with the aesthetic qualities of the world that surrounds us. We are at once enclosed and expanded by the environmental context we find ourselves in each day. Too often in today’s fast paced world we are encouraged to believe that the aesthetics which sustain us can be manufactured, but no one ever suggests that we stop and smell the rose-scented candles or picnic in a parking lot. We have been coerced to believe that the environment only matters for agricultural and recreational purposes when the truth is incredibly more complex than that—and that complexity demands not only a more robust understanding of how we are to be stewards of the land, but also that we become better stewards of the land in practice. As Ellen Davis right observes, “An urban world completely uninvolved in and ignorant of agriculture is a quite new phenomenon, an necessarily a transitory one.”5
III. Contextualizing Stewardship
Environmental stewardship in Appalachia is tangled not only in interpretive problems of Judeo-Christian Scripture and theology, but also in the anti-environmental corporate rhetoric that shrilly proclaims dominion over the earth. For the proponents of coal, mining in Appalachia is a God-given right and doing so to improve the lives of Appalachian residents is land use even God would approve of. Of course, for the many opponents of coal such use of Christian principles is both a distortion and a dangerous application of the concept of stewardship. Yet, both sides can find support for their claims by adhering to a particular version of Biblical hermeneutics. Somewhat ironically, Biblical support for both sides rests upon how one defines a handful of key words from a few critical passages. These verses help highlight the problem of developing a viable land-ethic in Appalachia, and make the need for a new kind of Christian stewardship in Appalachia readily apparent.
The Biblical tradition from which these interpretative methods are developed stem primarily from Genesis 1:26-28. There are three probable interpretations for what exactly God commanded, or perhaps desired, humankind as a creation imago Dei in relation to the rest of creation—Environmental philosophers place these interpretive methods into three categories: the despotic, stewardship, and citizenship interpretations. During the creation story of Genesis the Bible states,
26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
27So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them.
28And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”6
The critical words here are ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’ and from the use of these words a despotic approach to the relationship between humans and nature is derived. The despotic interpretation is established by generating an understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature as parallel to God’s relationship to humankind an as imago Dei—one of master to servant. That is, “if God is the self-described jealous and wrathful lord and master of man, man is, by implication, the jealous and wrathful lord and master of nature.”7 As such this interpretation expresses a belief that humans are special and have been given certain rights and privileges where nature is concerned that allow us to do, essentially, whatever we want free of moral constraints. The despotic interpretation is the party line of the coal industry.
Contrary to this is the stewardship interpretation of those same passages from Genesis. One could argue, persuasively, that God’s command that humans should have dominion over everything in existence on earth and in the skies and subdue them is not meant to be permission to pursue whatever plan of action we think is in our own best interests—though we have certainly done that for a very long time—rather, that God’s trust in humans to act as God’s viceroy on earth entails certain responsibilities and duties to those creatures and beings we have been set above without an expectation that they reciprocate. Chief among these responsibilities and duties, if we choose to understand God’s command in this way, “is man’s duty wisely and benignly to rule his domain, the earth. To abuse, degrade, or destroy the earth is to violate the trust that the regent (God) placed in His viceroy (man).”8 Such an idea stems directly form God’s direction to Adam to “dress and keep the garden” where “dress and keep” are analogous to the pastoral land ethic readily and ably explained in the works of Wendell Berry. Yet, one might find that failing to do this is a deviation from God’s command. Moreover, it might easily and rightly be claimed that failing to act responsibly even on the despotic account, perhaps especially on the despotic account, is a perversion of the command to have dominion and subdue the earth.9
However, the controversy has deeper theological roots than mere definitional problems where dominion and the imperative to subdue are concerned. There is a third, and far more radical, interpretation of the relationship we were intended to have with nature, or more generally, creation. According to the citizenship account humans were placed in the Garden of Eden and given every advantage suitable to their wants and needs, but they lived there as one of many creatures created by God. One of the many plants included in the Garden of Eden was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from which Eve, after giving in to temptation, ate a piece of fruit. There is a lot of speculation about what eating that piece of fruit did to Adam and Eve, but for the purposes of this paper it is only necessary to focus on the outcome that citizenship interpretation advocates claim. The conclusion they draw is that Adam and Eve became self-aware in relation to other things. Not merely that they were aware of Good and Evil, but that they were able to determine Good and Evil with reference to themselves in relation to the world—that is, Adam and Eve adopted a position of anthropocentrism.
Hence, anthropocentrism is the “fall from grace” that has besmirched humans since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The citizenship interpretation, then, claims, “[the anthropocentrism of Adam and Eve] upset the balance and order of nature as a whole—as God had created it and as, surely, He wished it to remain. God, we may suppose, intended man to live harmoniously within the whole of creation as a member, not to transcend it as its master—or, for that matter, as its steward.”10 Though the citizenship position is far more radical in its interpretation of Biblical lore, what it entails is not exactly achievable in terms of finding our way back into God’s good graces. This, of course, leaves us to choose between the despotic account and the stewardship account. Our position is that the stewardship account is not only preferable but a necessity in order for Appalachia and its residents to be saved from the destruction wrought by those who believe moving a mountain with a DC-9 bulldozer falls under the purview of what God had in mind when God used the terms ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’.
IV. In Appalachia “Utility” Is More Than A Light Bill
A despotic approach to Appalachia requires that we believe we can satisfy all of our needs, and especially our aesthetic needs, in an industrial context. Such a belief entails that we stop caring for the environment as anything other than instrumental in purpose. It is this lack of care that has allowed MTR and many other destructive practices to flourish in Appalachian communities. Before we can change the social circumstances that allow environmental destruction to exist, we must replace our love of technology, convenience and wealth with ethics and aesthetics. As Erik Reece rightly points out “we love what we find beautiful, and we do not destroy that which we love. What a strip job demonstrates, then, is the absence of any ethic or aesthetic.”11 Put more bluntly, our actions belie our words; we have no love for Appalachia.
Coal mining and production is a major source of employment for most Appalachian communities. In Kentucky alone during 2013, 12,000 people were employed in coal mining and production, extracting approximately 85 million tons of coal.12 Coal mining and production comprises approximately five percent of all manufacturing jobs in Kentucky.13 Therefore, any conversation that suggests elimination, or even augmentation, of the coal mining status quo in Appalachia must recognize the inherent economic ramifications. Regarding the necessity of MTR, coal company executives claim that without cheaper production methods coal mined in Appalachia will not be competitive with coal mined in other parts of the US or with foreign coal and the result would be job loss, decrease in economic viability, and the decline of overall community health.
However, these negative impacts result from MTR as well, and so the question being begged is whether or not MTR is necessary, that is, does it offset these negative impacts more than it exacerbates them without causing additional problems for the region? The obvious answer is that MTR is not necessary because it is incapable of producing social goods that will outweigh the negative consequences of pursing MTR. Perhaps more importantly, at 2010 levels of production “mines currently in production can only maintain existing levels of production for roughly another 11 years.”14 So, over the next decade or so MTR will be used to eradicate mountains and decimate communities while coal executives continue to crusade against competing sources of energy knowing full well that coal is not only an exhaustible resource, but also that easily mined coal is rapidly diminishing in Appalachia.
In many cases, the mere mention of augmentation or elimination of coal mining in Appalachia is enough to quash any conversation that bears the potential for meaningful or impactful change. In the lead up to the 2012 presidential election, a billboard was erected on Interstate 77 just north of Charleston, West Virginia that proclaimed, “Obama’s No Jobs Zone.”15 Propaganda such as this serves as a distraction from the larger issues surrounding coal mining in Appalachia and reduces them to a single issue: access to jobs.
Moreover, proponents of coal mining often employ the principle of utilitarianism in an attempt to show that the economic benefits of coal mining outweigh the ecological and cultural costs. In its most basic formulation, utilitarianism is a calculus used to distinguish between the moral and the immoral by calculating the outcome that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.16 Recast in economic terms, utilitarianism calculates which economic policy or proposal is likely to produce the greatest amount of wealth for the greatest number of people. Of course, such an approach must necessarily treat “wealth” and “happiness” as measurable, communicable ideas equally applicable to and mutually understood by all those being considered in the calculation. Moreover, this “economic utility” operates on the assumption that wealth and happiness are inextricably linked; that is, the wealthier I am, the happier I will be.
As Brad Woods and Jason Gordon point out, “The ‘coal means jobs’ mantra is clearly of vital importance for justifying the initiation and maintenance of extraction activities in coal-dependent communities.”17 The economic benefits of coal mining are threefold: high wages for individuals, tax revenues for communities, and high profits for corporations. Therefore, the principle of economic utilitarianism is employed to make the argument that coal mining benefits Appalachia at three levels: personal profit, community profit, and corporate profit; whereas, without coal mining, these profits are either diminished, shift to ‘other’ entities, or disappear altogether. Compounding the problem is the extreme poverty and economic needs of the region and, with constant repetition of its importance to the region and nation, coal companies have compelled many in the region to view MTR not “as an act of political injustice but as a burden of economic necessity.”18 Regrettably, because the mountainous terrain makes large-scale agriculture difficult and other industry shies away from the area because of its poverty and lack of an educated workforce, coal has managed to manufacture not only dependence on, but also a high level of loyalty19 to, an incredibly destructive monoeconomy. Few in the area are willing to abandon coal even when confronted with evidence of the industry’s unsustainable future and complicity in producing a hazardous living environment.
However, the fundamental flaw of the principle of economic utility lay in its central premise: that the most important goods for the people of Appalachia are tangible, monetary goods. Economic utilitarianism cannot measure more nuanced—but no less important—aspects of socio-economic status, education, race, or gender. Nor can economic utility measure the non-quantitative emotional harms inflicted on the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.20
In his 1994 pastoral letter, Gratissimam Sane, Pope John Paul II observed that, “Utilitarianism [cultivates] a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of “things” and not of “persons,” a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”21 The dichotomy of economic gains versus economic losses that economic utility superimposes upon Appalachians is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. Even more disturbing is the inherent self-sacrificial nature of the utilitarian position which, in economic terms, means that Appalachian citizens are taught to embrace—primarily through the propaganda of a corporately corrupted culture—which then sacrifices those self-same citizens to the corporate greed currently destroying Appalachian lives, livelihoods, and communities.
V. From “Conquerors and Victims” to “Exploiters and Nurturers”
In attempting to refocus the relationship of Appalachians to the land we are at the beginning beset by obstacles since the words ‘environmentalist’ and ‘environmentalism’ are burdened with social suspicions that make many people reluctant to identify themselves with environmental movements. Usually this suspicion begins with the misguided idea that one should care more about plants than people. Rather, what is being claimed is that without a proper concern for plants (or any other forms of non-human life) one cannot possibly care about the well-being of people. How we get beyond this problem may be one of merely changing the terminology or it may be conceptually more difficult. Toward this end we are advocating for the environment as the necessary foundation, the meeting place, of all justice narratives that find their confluence in Appalachia. At this point it is important to keep in mind that we are not here advocating for the best method for situating environmental concerns at the forefront of society’s justice conscience but instead that environmental justice is the right struggle within which we ought to ground all others. As former Czech president Vaclav Havel said, we must ‘reconstitute the natural world as the true domain of politics.’22
In his essay, “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry observes that much of human history can be understood in terms of “conquerors” and “victims.” However, these terms are problematic because of their simplicity and their inherent mutual exclusivity. In other words, these terms require classification into one of two categories. Berry suggests the terms “exploitation” and “nurture” as helpful alternatives because these terms allow for, not simply a division between persons, but also a division within persons.23 People can be—and often are—simultaneously exploiters and nurturers. Berry’s terminology and understanding of this relationship parallels Daniel Quinn’s labeling of “leavers” and “takers” as the fundamental paradigms that drive human culture.24 For our part, we believe that while Berry is correct to surmise that an individual can simultaneously be an exploiter and a nurturer, this dichotomous identity has, historically in much of Appalachia, been centered inside of a “leaver” mentality.
Exploiters are, Berry argues, identified as specialists or experts, whereas the nurturer is not. The standard measure of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard measure of the nurturer is care. The goal of the exploiter is profit; the goal of the nurturer is health—the land’s health, personal health, familial health, communal health, and national health.25 The implications of Berry’s terminology for our purposes are apparent: coal mining in Appalachia is not simply a matter of profits and losses; winners and losers; or conquerors and victims. Instead, the crisis of coal mining presents a far more complicated struggle that exists not only between persons, but also within a person.
Exploiters and nurturers, however, can be identified not simply by the characteristics of their moral code, but also by the fundamental question with which they approach the use of the land. Exploiters ask of the land how much and how quickly it can be made to produce. Nurturers ask a far more complex and difficult question: What is its carrying capacity? In other words, how much can be taken from the land without diminishing it; what can it produce dependably for an indefinite period of time?26 Nurturers are inextricably connected to a place, but exploiters are not—hence, not only the qualitative and quantitative difference in the questions they ask, but the need, the necessity, of cultivating a nurturing ideology in Appalachia. MTR is a rupture that dislocates people from their routine, normal lived experience by destroying their environmental location and “in a number of Appalachian contexts are communities whose experiences of place as a reliable life rhythm have been disrupted, even traumatized.”27 When thinking about this in terms of the identities that many people have built from their lives in the mountains, lifetimes spent gleaning knowledge and enjoyment from the landscape, generations spent learning to be a part of the ecology; the resulting rupture of that bond with the environment is devastating to more than just the mountain.
VI. Selling sacrifice ‘downstream’—Commodifying Appalachians
The fact that much of Appalachia is both white and impoverished highlights the tension between idealized notions of race and poverty in the United States and the reality of lived inequality.28 Even in the twenty-first century, cultural notions about poverty and race in the United States assume that wealthy Americans are white, and that poor Americans are black—or at very least, non-white. In keeping with this faulty cultural assumption, American consciousness identifies white Appalachians, not as “white,” but as “white trash” placing them somewhere between the 19th century idea of the Irish immigrant and the early 20th century idea of the Italian immigrant. In many cases, the overt mention of race is eliminated altogether and Appalachians are reduced to the pejorative colloquialism, “hillbillies.”29 This is in stark contrast to the self-image of many early Appalachians as “mountaineers,”30 a linguistic shift in popular cultural consciousness that has allowed mainstream America to think of Appalachia as a place “worth less” than other places—often being pejoratively termed a ‘national sacrifice zone.’ Because of the belittling imagery attached to the notion of “hillbillies” and because of the positive media façade coal companies have spun throughout political campaigns, the cultural imagination, and even the Appalachian community itself, most people think of Appalachia as a place to be exploited because, well, what else is it good for?
Consider just one recent episode in coal’s checkered history: in 2000 in Martin County, Kentucky a slurry impoundment pond burst sending 300 million gallons of coal waste into the community of Inez and the surrounding area. The slurry flood was twenty five times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill and polluted more than 75 miles of the Big Sandy River killing 1.6 million fish, washing away wildlife, plants, roads and bridges and contaminating the water supply of 27,000 people in its wake. There was little media coverage of the incident, the spill never even made it into the New York Times, even though the EPA described it as the worst environmental disaster in the Southeastern United States. Years later the slurry sludge still sits barely below the surface slowly poisoning everything with alarmingly high rates of arsenic, cadmium, nickel, lead, and mercury to name but the deadliest. This is not akin to floodwaters that recede bringing mud that can be washed off of things rather, the “slurry took all the color out of [the] valley and turned it into a gray apocalypse.”31
It is no accident that the two most iconic images emerging from Appalachia are that of the hillbilly and the coal miner. While they may seem to be opposite one another—the coal miner a modern industrial worker undergirding America’s rise to the top of the capitalist hill and the hillbilly a slur meant to portray a rural, backward peasant that siphons off resources by being lazy or unwilling to participate in society—the two are often portrayed interchangeably.32 Thus, in an effort to explain away the aberration of poor white communities, Appalachians suffer the dehumanizing effects of racism without the cultural sympathies that attend to other communities subjected to racist domination. The interchangeable nature of the “hillbilly” and the “coal miner” have allowed non-Appalachian Americans to think of the coal miner as a reluctant worker who begrudges the coal companies efforts to sustain and support them because, well, given their druthers they would all rather be sippin’ ‘shine in the hills doin’ nothin’. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth regarding both hillbillies, coal miners, and the residents of Appalachia generally.
Although the term bears dehumanizing racial and ethnic connotations, “hillbillies” are still relatively safe to disparage in American popular culture, largely because of the pervasive stereotyping of Appalachians.33 Iconic cultural images such as the Clampett’s from TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies or MTV’s “reality show,” Buckwild, dominates American consciousness, all the while insisting that Appalachians are poor, ignorant, and prone to violence—a notion reinforced by our cultural indulgence in the Hatfield and McCoy feud most recently revisited in 2012 by Kevin Costner in AMC’s three-part mini-series. Americans cannot conceive of an Appalachia that is creative, sustainable, and capable of intellectual thought, not because it does not or cannot exist, but because it has never been adequately represented in American culture.
The systematic cultural, ethnic, and economic commodification of Appalachians further complicates the crisis of coal mining because it prevents understanding of the problem as one in which all Americans—and, indeed, all humans—have a stake. Instead, Americans are taught to think of the problem as something that affects only the “other,” whose lives occur in a time and place completely foreign to the experiences of many urban and sub-urban Americans. Appalachia is often described as a Third World, or Developing, Country, completely separate from the rest of the United States because of its dire economic lag, runaway drug problems, educational under-performance, and lack of industrial development outside of coal mining. Hence, coal companies presume the moral high ground in defending their continued existence in Appalachia. Effecting a change in the cultural representation of Appalachia is not simply important; it is essential because for Appalachia’s citizens the struggles for economic, racial, class, political or any other kind of justice only makes sense in a struggle to save, preserve, conserve, and protect the environmental setting of their lives. The effects of MTR “not only alter the physical geography of [Appalachia], but [MTR] also place[s] the people who inhabit these areas in direct jeopardy, as traditional mountain culture and ancestry are being razed along with the mountains.”34 Without a newly formed notion of stewardship directed at redressing the current status quo in Appalachia, the struggle to save Appalachians, and ourselves, will have consequences that few of us are prepared to face.